Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Saying Goodbye To An Educator

A blip came up on the "relevant story" radar screen last week. An educator retired. He is as legendary and complex, as he is enigmatic. He is a man that has worn many hats.

They say timing is everything, especially in the world of public relations. With the Super Bowl and the election process in full swing, there may be a few people that missed it; and this is probably how the subject of this story wanted it, quiet and subtle, with as little fanfare as possible. He did not want to create an emotional storyline or endure some sentimental farewell tour, while there were hotter topics to talk about. He just wanted to slip away, on his terms and at a time of his choosing.

If you do not recognize the name of this teacher, you do not know much about basketball. If so, you have missed a lot.

His household name is Bobby Knight, the winningest Division I Men's Basketball coach in history. And if that was his only successful role in life, he still would be envied by many. But the complex man known in Bloomington and Lubbock was more.

Most of the country didn't see what we were able to see. But even in Indiana, he had his detractors. They loved him or they hated him. But he sold tickets, his teams played hard for him. Three of them played so damned hard, they got to cut down nets after the last game of the season. Not unlike political figures, this man was either demonized or deified. It all depended who you were talking to.

When it came to coaching basketball, there was none like him (before or after). They certainly broke that mold, when they made him. He was a revolutionary, both offensively and defensively. His real love (that is to say, where he placed his greatest emphasis) was defense. His philosophy was simple, if you play hard-nosed defense and take away your opponent's ability to get the shots they want, you can still have an off night shooting, and still win the game.

When the legendary Coach John Wooden was winning his titles at UCLA in the 60s and 70s, college played zone defense. There were some real tough zones, mind you. But Wooden's teams were exceptional at it. This is one reason why he brought man-to-man to college ball. I suspect he knew, the only way to beat a team like UCLA was to beat them with man-to-man. For years, he only played man-to-man. But in his later years, he relented and alternated the two.

Offensively, he taught patience. Passing was every bit as important as shooting. He brought the motion offense that has become common in many successful programs, to a new level. His offenses did not run and gun, the only time they were allowed to take the ball to the hoop was when you had no one in front of you. And, there was no rest for those that tried and didn't make it. He wanted discipline, perseverance, and diligence. He didn't want to see a lot of hot dogging. Sometimes I think he inspired Nike to write the slogan, "just do it". That was the bottom line with him.

But it doesn't end there. He was also a humanitarian.

He raised money, gave money, and helped people that needed help. In fact, he still does. He does his best work behind the scenes, where he likes it to be done. He isn't in the habit of doing good things, simply for positive publicity. He doesn't do things against the rules, there's no funny business with his players. But after they graduate, he has helped many along the way. They are no longer his players, they are his friends.

One must take special note that Knight doesn't just give money, he gives his time too. Money you can get back, time you cannot. This is a far more important entity to him.

One incident that I can recall fairly accurately (off the top of my head) is the incident that got buried in the sports sections around the country. I read about it in a few short paragraphs deeply embedded in Reader's Digest (where readers submit their stories).

The reader sent in (and they published) the story of how Knight came upon a big wreck after Indiana had won the title in 87, on I-10 outside New Orleans. He saw that the man was wanting to go to the hospital with his wife, but did not want to leave the wrecked car at the mercy of looters. The husband looked up at some man directing traffic, taking charge of the scene, and instantly recognized him. In awe, he looked at this towering guy with gray hair and said, "You're Bob Knight".

Knight replied, "yes, but that's not important now". He then sent the husband to the hospital in the ambulance with his wife, while he stayed at the scene until the wrecker came. When the husband told his wife the story, she gave him permission to throw all of the chairs he wanted to.

If you watch him enough, you'll find that he can be a comedian sometimes. He's a very funny guy, when he wants to be. Here is his first interview, since announcing his retirement:

You will likely note that a sports media personality was not among the first to get a crack at him. He had a very stormy relationship with the press. And the truth be told, it was definitely to his detriment. When the firing came from IU, it was his combative relationship with them that tipped the scale against retention.

Here is one instance where, as frustrated as he was, he was able to entertain his way out (instead of walking out):

Laugh if you will, it's where I learned to read a crystal ball.

But let's be clear here, not all encounters went this smooth.

But in spite of his nasty temper, he was able to convince parents to send their kids to play for him. Interestingly enough, those same kids were fully aware what this man was like and about, They knew it going in, and yet, they still elected to play for him. So, I have very little compassion for those that knew this, decided to play for him, and then whined about how mean he was afterward.

He demanded class attendance and making good grades, long before it was required to have a "C" average and fashionable to call them "student" athletes. He had the highest graduation rate of any in his profession. Needless to say, these young men he taught to play a kid's game, were taught more about life than anything else. At least that's what the bulk of his players will tell you.

Just having 4 years of Indiana basketball on a resume told a prospective employer, something important about the applicant: This person could probably withstand more pressure than the employer could dish out, on his/her worst day. This was just as true for benchwarmers, as it was starters (maybe even more so).

In the end, the game he loved so well has surely passed him up. Being the purist he is, it's hard for him to coach the kids of today, as they are surely different. He doesn't like the one year rule, before turning pro. Not only that, many coaches have adjusted to his style. In fact, they even mimic it against his team, because it's a very effective strategy. This year when you watch a tournament game or two, be sure to watch the style of the offenses. Be sure to watch the ball movement and the pump fake passes that throw a zone off balance. Be sure to watch the pressure man-to-man defense of the teams that go deep into the tournament.If you do, you will see what he brought to the game.

His time is over in coaching at the NCAA level. But I cannot imagine that he will be able to stay away from the game, for too long. If nothing else, you'll see him teaching his grandchildren to shoot, dribble, pass, and yes, play high pressure defense. I also think he'll teach lessons about life to whoever will listen. And you can bet he will not stop doing good when it is in the power of his hand to do so.

Until then, PYY wishes him a long healthy retirement. He's earned it.

One more soundbite as he rides off into the sunset, ESPN's Top Ten Soundbites from Coach Robert Montgomery Knight:

Stay in touch coach and wave when you see us.


Greg said...

A lot of the things you observe of Knight, you could say about another coach who has a rocky relationship with the press.

LASunsett said...

Maybe similar in a few ways, Greg.

I am sure the coach you speak of has his good points too. But despite this, the things they do wrong are fair game for criticism. There are many instances that I felt Knight was out of line. I make no excuses for those things. But being a jerk, does not discount the good things, anymore than doing good discounts being a jerk.

I am one of those few people that neither demonize nor deify Knight. What stands is what stands. His treatment of the media was many times unfair, just as the media was of him. His tantrums after a loss were not the best examples of sportsmanship. Neither was throwing the chair, hitting a policeman, or the many other angry displays.

PS-If you want to write a post about Belichick and his unknown qualities that the world does not see, send it to me sometime. I'll post it verbatim. You know that I try my best to be fair.

Greg said...

Knight is probably the best college basketball coach ever. Unfortunately, people are always remembered for the worst thing they've ever done. Most people will probably think of the chair-throwing incident (which I thought was great - sometimes the refs really do stink and should be told so) or the throat-grabbing incident. It's too bad. I bet 99% of his players have a positive opinion of him.

Anonymous said...

Bobby Knight is clearly one-of-a-kind. There will be other good coaches, and some number of these will try to emulate him, but no one will ever be a Bobby Knight. This is at it should be. I agree with LA: what you see, is what you got. He was unquestionably an exceptional coach. He is a decent human being. But I think what many people overlook is that Bobby Knight was an outstanding showman. He had a talent for getting publicity for his team; he knew when to throw chairs, when to poke fun at the press, how to be funny without making it look like he was even trying to do so, and he knew when it was time to be a serious leader. I recall a line from the film “Patton,” when an aide informed the general that there were times when the staff wasn’t sure when he was ranting seriously, or for show. Patton reportedly responded, “It isn’t important for them to know. It’s only important for me to know.” And that, in my opinion, is Bobby Knight.

LASunsett said...


//Knight is probably the best college basketball coach ever.//

I put him second behind John Wooden. He didn't yell, scream, or curse. But if you ask his players, he was every bit as tough on them. They were always the best conditioned team on the court. His philosophy was: If we get beat, it won't be because the other team was in better shape than us.

LASunsett said...


//“It isn’t important for them to know. It’s only important for me to know.” //

Same as the dreaded and feared drill instructors we faced, eh?